The meeting Thursday night at City Hall was intended to de-escalate a tense situation regarding police accountability, but in less than an hour the dialogue broke down.
Two men had already been removed from the overflow meeting after launching expletive-laced tirades at Police Chief John Diaz. Next to the panel of eight speakers was displayed a poster calling officer Ian Birk, who fatally shot John T. Williams last August, a murderer.
Then people dressed in black, including some who distributed anarchist material before the meeting, marched inside, chanting “cops, pigs, murder, murder.”
Rick Williams, the brother of the Native American carver, went outside the meeting room, grabbed two of them and insisted they leave. Back inside, Williams overturned the sign calling Birk a murderer.
“That’s how you de-escalate,” one woman said.
Seattle police have been criticized for several recent high-profile incidents, some of which were recorded.
On Thursday, panelist Tim Burgess — a former police officer and head of the City Council’s public safety committee — said while Seattle officers use force much less than the national rate, there is clearly something wrong with police relations.
Late last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and 34 other organizations called for the federal government to investigate whether there is a pattern and practice of civil rights violations by Seattle police in violation of the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
Representatives from the civil rights division of the Department of Justice are scheduled to meet later this month with U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and others in response to requests for a review of Seattle police practices. Mayor Mike McGinn said he supported a review of the department’s use of force.
In the meantime, the sometimes-angry crowd at City Hall on Thursday for a forum sponsored by the newspaper The Stranger showed how rocky many citizens’ relationship is with police.
“We have a lot of work to do,” McGinn told the crowd. “And we need you.”
NAACP head: Good officers overshadowed by problems
Most in the crowd weren’t pleased when Diaz said he didn’t think there was a pattern of excessive force against minorities. During another of Diaz’s answers, Seattle NAACP President James Bible interrupted the meeting, which was organized to address the question, “Where do we go from here?”
“We don’t even know where we are,” Bible said, repeating words he yelled at Diaz. He called the meeting a whitewash of the truth, said it wasn’t meaningful, and that some community members are terrified of officers.
Bible noted that in 2009 or 2010 no use-of-force complaints were sustained by the Office of Professional Accountability, the civilian-led group that investigates complaints against officers. He said there is not sufficient police oversight and called for Diaz and OPA Director Kathryn Olson to go.
Bible said he and others train young people to comply with Seattle police and not to argue with officers. Guild President Rich O’Neill said in each of the high-profile incidents, those approached by police were not complying with orders, and that the street is not the place to address a problem with an officer.
Asked why he spoke out when his lesson to others is not to argue, Bible said, “There are some occasions when you need to take a stand.” He said Diaz and Olson haven’t addressed serious problems.
O’Neill’s response about compliance got an angry crowd response. Nicole Gaines — president of the local chapter of the Loren Miller Bar Association, the largest national organization of African American attorneys — responded that professional officers are held to a higher standard.
Though O’Neill and Gaines sat next to each other, they rarely made eye contact during answers. Bible called for truth — police openness about incidents — reconciliation and change.
But he clarified outside the meeting room that “many police officers do work that we are proud of.” Bible seemed to echo Burgess, saying the majority of officers are not a problem.
However, he said good officers aren’t standing up to ones who cause problems and, because the department has poor leaders in the chief and OPA director, the system is only as good as the sum of its parts.
“The blue wall of silence,” he said, “overshadows work done by good officers.”
Trying to break the cycle
Moderator C.R. Douglass introduced O’Neill by welcoming him to “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” — possibly a reference to the police union leader’s response to the department’s swearing policy.
O’Neill, like other department officials, said he believes there is not a systemic problem with the department. O’Neill believes that will be the result of the Justice Department investigation, though a detailed timeline for that process hasn’t been set.
Anne Levinson, a former judge and OPA civilian auditor, said she’s reviewed each recent use-of-force complaint against officers and that most were handled well. Others, such as Bible, said the OPA should be reworked.
During the second hour of the meeting, two men unveiled a 12-foot poster calling for Diaz to resign for his failure to stop police violence.
Discussing officers wearing body cameras, Seattle ACLU Legislative Director Jennifer Shaw said the cameras wouldn’t deter problems, and that good training and oversight were better solutions. She raised concerns about cameras going into homes — concerns Diaz shared. Pamela Masterman-Stearns, president of the city’s Native American employee group, supported the idea of officer body cameras.
Some people asked why problems about police accountability were coming around again in a familiar cycle.
Burgess, the city councilman and former officer, said there are many good stories from the department that don’t get out, but also said he’d prefer the department be more open about problems.
Until the good men and women of SPD stand up and address the actions of a few, he said, “we’ll keep going through this cycle.”